How Can We Hope When There Is No Hope?

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

The poet and writer Raymond Carver, told at age 50 that he would soon die of cancer, illustrates hope when he asked himself in one of his final poems if he had gotten what he wanted out of life. The answer is, “yes, he has felt beloved on the earth.” After his death, Carver’s companion found an “errand list” in his shirt pocket. I would call this “errand list” a Manifesto of Hope:

Peanut butter
Hot choc

(Excerpt from Tough Transitions by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

How can there be any hope when we have already lost what we hold most dear? Where does hope live when we hear the words announced to us, “There is no hope”? We cannot bring the person back. We cannot return to life as it was.

For a long time people have been thinking about this dilemma. One of these individuals was Immanuel Kant who lived and wrote in the 1700s. Kant thought a lot about the kind of subjects we might label as “the eternal verities”: hope, ethics, God, morality, the meaning of life. Kant came up with three questions that he thought expressed the central human concerns. Here are his famous questions:

What can I know?

What can I do?

What can I hope?

I’ve known a lot of people who found great value in exploring these questions at times when it seemed there truly was no hope. Here Kant’s Three Questions are answered by a daughter whose mother is in a nursing home with severe Alzheimer’s:

What can I know?

Perhaps before I identify what I can know (meaning possibility) I might visit what I do know or seem to know (my reality.) I know death is inevitability. I know that watching my mother die a death that diminishes her mentally and physically on a daily basis is difficult to witness. I know that this death is not one that either she or I would have chosen for her. I know that nursing homes are problematic and even the best leave much to be desired. I know that angels come in the form of uneducated women with limited choices in their lives who take care of the aged, feeble, cranky, or comatose residents with patience, steadfastness, tenderness and compassion.

I know that I am not the same person I was before beginning this final piece of my mother’s journey almost two years ago. I am much more humble and aware that the present moment is a gift to graciously be received. I know that it has been my wish for many years to be able to see the whole of my mother’s life from a vantage point more spacious than only that of a daughter, and I am so grateful this desire has been fulfilled beyond any vision I imagined.

What should I do?

This is the paradox. What I should do is to be more and do less, for out of my being comes the doing. My most lucid moments come riding on the sounds of silence. It is then that I awake from fear and separateness and am able to let go of the judgment I put on my mom’s circumstances. It is only then that I can even entertain the notion that things that seem so unfair can eventually make sense or not. Most of the time I vacillate between positions of darkness and light minute by minute, struggling to pay attention to all the synchronistic patterns that continue to appear.

What can I hope?

I babysat my grandsons this weekend; and, as I fed, diapered, and frolicked with them, I thought about my parents and what they thought of me as their child. I had such a keen sense of the wonder of family, of former generations, of the contribution that each of us makes. I recalled a fond memory of my dad serving as Sunday school superintendent for many years and his delight in that role. I looked forward to Sunday morning and particularly to the songs we sang. My favorite was, “This little light of mine, I want to make it shine.” That is what I hope for all of us. That our light can and will shine.

(Excerpt based on content from Tough Transitions by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

It seems to me that this courageous adult daughter is a kindred spirit with Raymond Carver, whose errand list appears in the opening sentences above. Both are not looking through rose-colored glasses. Yet both are still choosing to participate in life as it comes to them. Thoughtful, honest, and still imagining life lived as a gift of a continuum.

Related articles:
How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?
Creatively Coping With Grief

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
Do Men Grieve Differently From Women?
How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?
The Value of Reminiscing
Loss of Our Assumptive World

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

(Author's photo by Joey Bieber)

Photo by mmagallan/StockXchng


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